Rep. John Bucy III on the 86th Texas Legislature
“We’ve got to do everything we can to keep attention on Medicaid expansion”
In a rematch of the 2014 race, John Bucy defeated three-term incumbent Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, in House District 136, representing a western portion of Williamson County, including much of Northwest Austin. Bucy is the president and founder of the Texas Charter School Academic & Athletic League (TCSAAL), and former chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party. – Michael King
Austin Chronicle: So how does it feel to be a “Representative-Elect”?
John Bucy: I’m excited. It’s been a whole lot of fun – lots of meetings, it’s been non-stop since the election.
AC: What’s your sense of where things stand for you, as an incoming freshman entering the 2019 session?
JB: I’m encouraged. I’ve been through freshman orientation, and really got to know people on both sides of the aisle, so many incoming freshmen – that was really an experience in relationship-building. I’m eager to learn where we can find common ground and make some progress for the state.
AC: The Democrats are encouraged that you came out of the midterms with significant gains in the House. Do you have a feel yet for what that might mean in policy terms?
JB: I’m still very encouraged that we’re going to make progress on education finance reform. Not just because we picked up Democratic seats, but because there seems to be bipartisan support for that cause in the House right now. The incoming speaker [Dennis Bonnen] is making that his one and only priority. In one-on-one meetings with him, he seems really committed to making progress on public schools. So I’m encouraged. I think it’s going to come down to a battle [between] us and the Senate, and then the governor, to see if we’re really going to make some positive change for our schools.
AC: From the outside, it’s odd hearing Bonnen and even the Republicans as a whole saying schools are a priority, while simultaneously insisting that we need to cut property taxes and cap them at the local level. Based on the people you’re talking to, how do they propose to square that circle?
JB:Well, that’s where I think the fight’s going to be. I think in the House, we need to deliver a bill that truly addresses the problem, which means increasing funding for public schools. On the other side, the Lieutenant Governor [Dan Patrick] made a promise to lower property taxes. He shouldn’t have made that promise, because so far, he hasn’t been committed to doing what you have to do, to do that, and that’s to add funding to our public schools.
I think one of the encouraging things is the new energy in the House, and it’s not just the Democrats. I’ve met with some of the Republican freshmen, and they seem encouraged to do something, Dennis Bonnen seems encouraged to do something to truly address it, which means increasing funding. I think if we put a good bill together that it’s hard for the Senate to say no – and if they do, we go out and make the world know, who stood in the way of our schools. I think this next election  is going to be bigger than this last one, and I think we can continue to make real progress. If the Republicans want to hold their seats, they need to join the Democrats for our public schools.
AC: What do you think that solution might look like overall?
JB: For sure, it’s going to come down to significant investment. We know right now that we need to put in about $12 billion more, over a biennium, to balance it out and provide some true property tax relief in the process. That’s a big ask for this session. I hope to see us make progress towards that goal, go out and have another good election year, and come back with even more support for the next session.
AC: Another issue prominent in your campaign was health care. Do you have any sense where progress might be made there?
JB: I think we’ve got to do everything we can to keep attention on Medicaid expansion. Standing in the way of Medicaid expansion is standing in the way of Texas. It would bring billions of dollars into our economy, and it would help millions of Texans get the health care they need. Right now, because of the political games being played by the governor and the lieutenant governor on this, Texans are dying. And we as taxpayers pay twice for health care, for those Texans who are uninsured. It just makes no sense – that’s why the business community is behind it, the progressive community is behind it. Now we just need to get some statewide leaders behind it. We need to keep the magnifying glass on this issue, and make people understand what it means to turn down Medicaid funding for the state.
AC: Do you place much confidence in Gov. Greg Abbott’s promise to establish something better than the Affordable Care Act?
JB: I do not, and I’m not totally hopeful that he’s had the wakeup call he needs. But if you look at races like mine, where we saw a 23-point [partisan] swing, one of the main reasons, I think, was Medicaid expansion. [Dale] made it a major issue to oppose it; I made it a major issue to support it, and the voters told us what they want. They clearly seem to be moving in that direction.
AC: Do you think it’s still a rhetorical battle for this session, looking toward 2020?
JB: Unfortunately, I do, but maybe if we keep the pressure on, people will wake up. I will say this: If you follow the narrative about how school finance funding has the true impact on property taxes, that’s taken years for people to catch on to, but now that is the narrative across the state. I have the same feeling on the campaign trail, and through this session, about the benefits of Medicaid expansion. So long as this stays in the public eye, I think the voters are going to wake up. It’s important that the voters know who supports it and who doesn’t, so they know who to support in the next election.
AC: A related issue, on property taxes, is local control. The governor is not simply talking about lowering taxes, but making it impossible for local jurisdictions to increase taxes, even to make rational budgets. Where do you think that argument is going to go?
JB: We’ve got to stand in the way of infringing on local control, when it comes to taxes. That’s why we have local elections; the people pick local officials to make those decisions, and it shouldn’t be our job at the Legislature.
In districts that are growing rapidly, like mine, you’d really cripple the economy, and you’re gonna cripple schools. In areas of the state that do not get sufficient state funding, but do not have strong property values, you’re seeing our schools crumble. Areas like mine, the schools have been okay, because they’ve raised the property taxes so much. But if we cap that, our schools everywhere are going to crumble, and in booming areas like mine, you shouldn’t put those restrictions on a growing economy.
AC: In that context, what issues do you think most directly affect your district [HD 136], which takes in part of Austin but is largely suburban?
JB: You’ve got it – protecting good schools. Our schools are moving into recapture [in Round Rock ISD and Leander ISD], and they’re concerned about that. They want to protect our schools, but not through schemes – through making the investments needed. One of the other major issues for us is transportation. The commute is insane, and many of our people commute into Austin, including myself. I live in Avery Ranch, so I’m at the edge of Austin, and I commute into Downtown and will be commuting to the Capitol, and we see a regular 45-minute-plus commute every day each way. That’s just not good for time with our families and friends, and what we need back in our community.
Transportation is a major issue without an easy solution. I’ve been having meetings with the county commissioners and the mayors of all of my towns, to start a dialogue and make sure we can all sit at the same table and try to solve these problems. My predecessor [Tony Dale] had some people he wouldn’t talk to because they didn’t see eye-to-eye politically. That’s something I strongly disagree with. We’ve got to be willing to talk with everybody in elected office that we overlap with, so we can try to come up with solutions.
AC: The new Apple campus, just announced, will be in your district?
JB: It is in the district, and it will have a major impact, and create an even stronger need for infrastructure. I’m going to have a meeting with Apple people soon. It was announced just recently, so I’ve got a lot to learn about it. I do think it makes sense for our area – we’re a rapidly growing area, we’re growing in diversity and education, and definitely a booming tech area and region.
AC: I assume it also makes a very strong argument for better transit solutions.
AC: I suppose you could ask them to pay for transit, since Williamson County is paying their taxes for them. [The county incentives, based on job creation, include $16 million over 15 years, with another $25 million promised by the state.]
JB: I saw that. I’ve got a lot to learn about this process. It was a surprise to me – I did not know it was coming into the district until after the announcement. But I’m not sworn in yet, so I’m not totally surprised.
The [Capital MetroRail] Red Line runs through my district, and it’s really successful. Sometimes you hear jokes about the train in our community, but the Red Line is at max capacity during rush hour. I think it’s proof that people will use this kind of mass transportation, and we need to be investing more in it. So I want to see what we can do to help build this kind of infrastructure. I know they just passed a transportation plan for the region [Project Connect], and I think the Red Line is a great example of success for a commuter train in our region. It’s environmentally friendly, and I’d love to see it expanded; it doesn’t run late enough, in my opinion. On weekends in the summer they had extended-hour days, and families really utilized it to go Downtown, to enjoy some of things in Austin, out from our area. So I think we’re seeing that it’s a good tool for our community, that we need to expand.
AC: Thus far, there’s been less early talk of “wedge issues” – bathroom bills, sanctuary cities and the like – have you been hearing much of that?
JB: Not on the House side – I’m encouraged by that. In these one-on-ones we’ve had with the speaker, and just freshmen Republicans, they seem committed more to keeping that stuff off the House floor, and I hope we’ll see that. We’ve got truly pressing issues that need to be dealt with this session, including education finance reform. The next session, there’s going to be such a focus on redistricting, we’ve got to make progress this time, to help our schools.
AC: So there’s none of that coming out of the speaker’s office?
JB: I haven’t heard it. I did not support Bonnen from Day 1 – I was not on his list [of supporters]. I was committed to the [Democratic] caucus being a unified bloc. But with that said, I am encouraged, in the meeting I had with him, his singular commitment to education finance reform.
AC: Sen. Watson was concerned that the property tax cap might become this session’s wedge issue equivalent, and push other things to the side.
JB: I do fear the governor and lieutenant governor pushing through an arbitrary cap on our local property taxes. That is going to be a failure in the long run, that they’ll think of as a short-term political win. It’s not good for our schools, it’s not good for our communities.
AC: Any other policies that you’re thinking about right now?
JB: There seems to be a growing narrative that we need to make some prison reform progress when it comes to marijuana. I’m not sure exactly what that means. I don’t think we’re going to see the state jump into recreational [marijuana] any time soon, maybe not even medical marijuana. But I think we’ve got to make progress, and I hope we can do that this session. I’m an auxiliary member of the Leander VFW hall, and speaking with veterans, medical marijuana is a high priority of theirs. The PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is such a growing issue, and just throwing narcotics at the problem is not helping. There’s a lot of belief that medical marijuana is a better medicine for that, and I’d like to see the conversation grow. I’d like to see some initiatives toward decriminalization. We’ve got to stop putting people in jail for marijuana.
AC: And it’s not uniquely a Democratic issue; it’s also of interest to libertarian Republicans, although I don’t know how much that faction is represented in the Legislature.
JB: I don’t know either, but we’re spending so much money locking up nonviolent criminals for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and that has to change.
AC: Any more thoughts about criminal justice reform, generally?
JB: We need to take a more holistic look and try to get people that are nonviolent out of our prisons; we’ve got too many people there. We’re preparing for that conversation. Education finance reform is very important, but there are a lot of other issues that are important, and we need to make sure nothing gets lost in this session.
AC: Anything else you hope to be working on?
JB: Well, I’ve been running basically for five years, to get here, and I want to maximize this experience, work as hard as I can, and hope I get to be back. It’s been a long fight with a lot of support from my community; I want to make sure that I and my staff work hard to represent them well.
One more thing: We have started a program – abbreviated CAB – it’s our Community Advisory Boards. When you get on City Council, you get to appoint people onto commissions, same with Commissioners Court. That doesn’t exist in the state House, so we established our own. We’re starting six CABs – people apply to be on them, with various topics: environment, criminal justice reform, education, and health care, amongst others. People apply throughout the district – we’re allowing some people to apply outside of the district, if they have a specialty. It’s going to be across the spectrum, Republicans as well as Democrats. We want to have a more representative voice at the Capitol – it shouldn’t be just me and my staff’s ideas – so these individuals are stepping up to serve. They’re going to start in early January, they’ll meet monthly – analyze legislation, propose legislation, and have an advocacy day at the Capitol to meet with me and other members on legislation that their group supports. We’re going to treat them as an extension of our office, to really help us have a better connection to the community.
AC: One last question – how surprised were you at that dramatic voting shift in your district?
JB: We were shocked. I’ll tell you this: We thought we were going to win. Throughout the course of the year, we polled it – sophisticated polling once, IVR polling [interactive voice response, by telephone] a few times, and it always came back with us up one point. So we thought we would probably win in a nail-biter. To win by 10 points [53.3% – 43.8%] was shocking.
AC: Do you think that’s indicative of a wider trend across Central Texas, if not Texas?
JB: I think in the country, the suburbs are changing rapidly. I think it’s really a three-fold issue specific to our district. One, we ran an aggressive field campaign in 2014, when I ran and lost the first time. We continued that field development, throughout, with the Western WilCo Dems group, with the focus on building the grassroots throughout District 136. So it’s really been five years without letting up on grassroots development. That, coupled with rapid population growth, and particularly with what was going on higher up the ticket, whether that be Donald Trump or Beto O’Rourke … just a lot happened. We thought we were going to win, but nothing like we saw on Election Day.